Where the wild things come to play


The great outdoors used to be our playground, but children are spending an increasing amount of time indoors or in highly controlled environments. How can we get them back to nature, asks SYLVIA THOMPSON

MANY OF US look back nostalgically on childhood days playing in fields, climbing trees, riding our bikes around the place or digging in the garden in search of worms. However, a survey published by the Heritage Council last week highlighted the fact we all instinctively know, that children today are much less likely to play freely in fields, woods or other wild spaces. It also found that children’s play is much more supervised whether in the school yard, at home, in the garden, in indoor and outdoor playgrounds and of course in those wild spaces.

Curiously, the survey pointed out that the level of supervision in the wild spaces was less than that in more controlled environments – leading one to suspect that the children in the fields had escaped from parental control. This might concern parents, whose fears of their children engaging in unsupervised play far outweigh any benefits they remember from their own childhoods.

Commenting on the survey, Heritage Council chief executive Michael Starrett says: “If future generations are expected to protect and preserve our natural world, children must be encouraged to take an interest in and experience the real outdoors.”

He believes parental concerns about supervision are a barrier to children exploring the outdoors. “Playgrounds and indoor centres do not provide the same learning opportunities as the natural world,” he says.

Concerns about how children are losing out on access to nature has become a huge debate in the US following the publication of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder(Algonquin paperbacks, 2008) by journalist Richard Louv. The causes are obvious – children’s access to technology (computers, iPods, mobile phones, etc), rampant consumerism (toys marketed directly at children) and of course, parents fearful of their children going outdoors because of heavy traffic or risks of being targeted by strangers.

The consequences are, however, possibly even more dangerous. Many children can’t find their way anywhere because they are usually driven almost everywhere. Researchers have found that today’s children can more readily identify technology logos than wildflowers. And many spend 90 per cent of their time indoors.

Louv links the lack of nature in the lives of today’s generation of children to the rise of obesity, attention disorders and depression. He argues that the direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. “We need to put children in a situation where they have a sense of wonder. It’s that simple,” he writes.

His book became a New York Timesbestseller and spawned a number of campaigns across the US, including the Leave No Child Inside project which aims to create outdoor educational initiatives for American children wherever they live.

It also gave a voice to ecologists and child development experts who share his concerns.

“The sad thing about modern children is that they don’t see the connection between nature and their own lives. They think blueberries come from shops,” says Trond Viggo Torgersen, former Norwegian children’s ombudsman. “To stay healthy and fit and sane, you need to go outdoors and discover the world. Parents have to be more active in the ways they present nature to their children. Even by eating outdoors in the park, children will discover things themselves and start playing and researching things.”

Outdoor education leaders are adamant that children play more creatively in nature. Putting up tents, foraging for food, gathering sticks and making a fire are all tasks that require problem-solving skills. In the environmental education documentary Play Again(playagainfilm.com), there is a very striking interview with a 14-year-old boy who is a tactical master of computer combat games but who struggles to successfully join in a real-life combat game at an adventure camp.

Another teenage girl on the adventure camp says, “It’s cool to use your body and be active and eat all these healthy things. At home, we use all these things we don’t really need.”

Expert commentators in the documentary include Susan Linn, instructor of psychology at the Harvard Medical School. “Children are receiving messages on what they have to have to be happy,” says Linn. “It is interfering with the natural developmental experience of human beings to experience their own bodies and nature. If we stand by and let this happen, we are seeing the death of childhood.”

Eco-psychologist Thomas J Doherty also comments. “The problem is that children now don’t learn how to become their own active agents in the world but every child has the same agenda.” Doherty argues that contact with nature has huge advantages for children’s development. “The richer their imagination becomes, the more their consciousness grows. Their heart grows big, their sensitivity to others grows and their problem-solving skills go through the roof, and that is a connection to nature that brings it on. Pastimes such as digging in the dirt are unavailable or even prohibited to children and with that is a loss of resource. The less they are allowed to do this stuff in nature, the more they will search for outlets in technological ways,” says Doherty.

Katy Egan of the Irish Wildlife Trust says that she notices a huge change of attitude in children nowadays. “They are afraid to get dirty. They don’t know basic trees, flowers or animals. They don’t understand where food comes from. Our disconnection from bugs, plants and animals in books to the role they play in our lives is profound. The coming generations may not understand basic concepts like what services worms provide in the ecosystem within which we survive. If this is the case then if worms die off from a newly released chemical, it’s no big deal because they are just worms,” says Egan.

“It’s one thing to say that today’s children couldn’t survive in the wild if such an incident occurred. It’s another to think that the society may not survive because the people in it don’t understand or aren’t connected to the basic elements of life.”

Isabell Smyth from the Heritage Council says that younger teachers are less likely to bring children on nature trips.

“We notice that many of them are not comfortable going outdoors and are not as familiar with wildlife as teachers of older generations,” she says. “It doesn’t cost much to take children to the woods and wilder areas. Every town and village has access to walking routes, parks, canal walks or woodland areas now and they are very under-used. It’s important for teachers and parents to realise it’s worth taking the time. The back garden [and the school yard] is not enough. We need to give children the space to take risks,” she says.

The Irish Wildlife Trust is launching its new Primary School Adventure programmes, which engage children in learning while immersed in nature, with the screening of the environmental education documentary Play Againon Thursday, March 10th at 6.30pm in the Lighthouse Cinema, Smithfield, Dublin. It will be followed by a discussion with environmental educator Paddy Madden, artist Gordon D’Arcy and environmentalist Sarah O’Malley. Tickets cost €9/€7.50 and can be booked on 01-8797601.

Fun outdoors Five ways to connect with nature

Spend time outdoors with and without your children

Children learn most from modelling the behaviour of others, so even eating your meals outside encourages discussion of plants and insects.

Bring a picnic to the park or the beach and let young children wander a bit. Take older children on a hike. Give them opportunities to fish, swim in rivers and climb trees.

Join a walking group or nature club

These allow people of all ages to explore the outdoors together. Bring maps and pocket nature books so you can identify what you discover en route. Check out opportunities to overnight in youth hostels in the hills.
Enrol your children in eco-camps

Check out the Irish Wildlife Trust’s outdoor adventure camps for children of all ages and encourage your children’s school to check out the IWT new primary school programme which includes a wilderness experience. See iwt.ie for further details.

Organise field trips

Get a group of like-minded parents together to organise field trips to the park, beach or woodland. Most large parks have wilderness areas that children can spend unsupervised time in while parents are in fact just around the corner or within ear shot.

Join the scouts

Encourage your children to join the scouts. It’s one of the best ways to learn outdoor skills in a safe, supervised environment. Children can join the Beaver Scouts from the age of six. See scouts.ie for details